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Zanzibar zooms in on the future of visual arts in Africa

Hamad Mbarouk Hamad, artist and director of the Cultural Arts Center, leads a tour for students at the “Hapa Hapa Now” visual arts exhibition in Stone Town, Zanzibar, October 25, 2019. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

The historic city of Stone Town met with the future of visual arts in Africa during the inaugural, seven-day Visual Arts Festival Zanzibar (VAFZ), which took visitors by surprise with its epic range of work showcased by artists from Zanzibar, mainland Tanzania, Haiti, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, among other countries.

Under the banner “Hapa Hapa Now,” or “Here We Are Now,” VAFZ organizers wanted to “widen creative discourses” in Zanzibar, by connecting local and international, emerging and established artists together during the festival that ran from October 21-27, 2019.

While Zanzibar has a robust art market, artists often tend toward safe, predictable forms established by Tanzanian masters like legendary Edward Said Tingatinga, for instance. But the works on display at the VAFZ varied in form, style, medium and subject matter — a major departure for Zanzibar.

VAFZ put out a call for submissions to artists in Africa in August and worked around the clock to select a range of artists, with leadership from Vijana Vipaji Foundation, based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Cultural Arts Center (CAC), based in Stone Town, Zanzibar.

“Everything we are has been formed by our heritage, histories and herstories, but we are here building and creating today. The ‘we’ in our festival focuses on collaboration and participation with others within Zanzibar and wider Africa as we invite … a conversation about visual arts,” said VAFZ organizers, according to their press release.

The inner courtyard of Hifadhi House/Kukutana Hub, Kiponda, Stone Town, Zanzibar, October 25, 2019. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

Despite the unusual rain for the season, residents and travelers alike made their way to Kukutana Hub of Hifadhi Zanzibar, — a historic heritage building restored for multi-purpose cultural and social events — to experience the mixed media showcase, talks, panels and meet-ups.

The heritage building itself was an exquisite visual treat. But the visual arts on display — from contemporary painting, drawing and photography to mixed media, craft, time-based art and fashion, offered a surprise at every turn.

Emerging artist Nayja Suleiman, from Zanzibar, offers a brilliant, vibrant take on women in portraiture:

Artwork by Najya Suleiman, an artist from Zanzibar, on display during the inaugural Visual Arts Festival Zanzibar, 2019. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

Award-winning, veteran artist Lute Mwakisopile, from Tanzania, tackles the arduous labor and role of artists in contemporary society:

Artwork by Lute Mwakisopile, an artist from mainland Tanzania. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

And emerging photographer Ouattara Moussa Idriss Mahaman, from Senegal, presents a moving series called “Black Culture”:

Photography by Ouattara Moussa Idriss Mahaman, from Senegal, in the series “Black Culture.” Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

Educating future artists

During the weeklong festival, scores of Zanzibari students wandered through the exhibition space with awe and wonder. For nearly all of the students who visited from nearby elementary and secondary schools, this was their first time viewing contemporary art in a gallery space, said Hamad Mbarouk Hamad, the director of the Cultural Arts Center, who is also a professional, working artist.

“There is no syllabus for visual arts of any kind in our schools,” said Hamad. “A school may have an art club, but that's about it. Everything else that a young person learns about the visual arts depends on their own path — and it's often a struggle, as mine was,” he continued.

Hamad Mbarouk Hamad, artist and director of the Cultural Arts Center in Stone Town, Zanzibar, leads a tour of the “Hapa Hapa Now” visual arts show for students from Kiponda Secondary School, October 25, 2019. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

Hamad and his team offered tours and hands-on art workshops to student groups during the festival, hoping to inspire the next generation of artists and build a stronger community of visual artists in Zanzibar.

“Art is life, it's everything we do. Your life is a work of art, even! Life itself is art. And it's a form of self-analysis. Art requires huge concentration,” said Hamad. The challenge is educating the wider public about the intrinsic value of art as a form of individual expression and not just its commercial potential.

Hamad Mbarouk Hamad explains a wood sculpture by prominent Tanzanian artist Mwandale Mwanyekwa, known as “Big Mama,” to a group of Kiponda Secondary School students at Kukutana / Hifadhi House, Stone Town, Zanzibar, October 25, 2019. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

Hamad Mbarouk Hamad explains a painting called “Immigration,” by artist Haji Chilonga, to Kiponda Secondary School students, Kukutana / Hifadhi House, Stone Town, Zanzibar, October 25, 2019. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

Farhat Shukran Juma, 23, always knew she was drawn to the arts but didn't realize she could pursue it seriously until she stumbled upon the CAC in Stone Town, and walked inside. She started studying art techniques with Hamad and today, Juma paints her own abstract works and also produces natural soaps to sell in the shop. Juma led a recycled paper workshop during the festival to a group of 30 students.

The road to becoming an artist hasn't been easy for her.

“Most people here — they talk a lot about you, especially if they don't understand what you're doing, or if you're doing something different. They really don't understand abstract art,” she said, pointing to one of her works. “[Many] are not educated and they may see the recycled paper as ‘dirty’ and wonder why I'd choose this material. They have no idea that making art has its benefits,” Juma explained.

Farhat Shukran Juma, 23, (left) sits with her colleague preparing handmade artisan soaps at the Cultural Arts Center in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Juma is an artist who led a recycled paper workshop during the VAFZ 2019. Photo by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, used with permission.

Juma's parents were supportive of her choice to pursue the arts, but exhibiting artist Evarist Chikawe, of the Vijana Vipaji Foundation, said his father discouraged his early interest in drawing and painting.

“I believe I was born an artist,” Chikawe said. “My father was angry with me when he saw me drawing and drawing and destroyed so many of my artworks, but my sister — she saw something in me, and started giving me [art] materials and buying my paintings.”

With tears in his eyes, Chikawe recalled how his now-deceased sister took him to his first teacher's house in his late teens. “My sister is the one who made me an artist,” Chikawe said, emphasizing how advocates play a critical role in an artist's life path.

Visual artist Evarist Chikawe stands by his painting, “Happy Hour,” during the inaugural Visual Arts Festival Zanzibar, October 25, 2019.

For Hamad, who has worked tirelessly to advocate for the arts in Zanzibar, often with very little resources, seeing visitors from Zanzibar's Ministry of Education and the Baraza la Sanaa la Zanzibar (Zanzibar Arts Council) at the exhibition signaled hope for the future of visual arts on the archipelago.

But for now, beyond the festival buzz, Hamad returns to the CAC every day as his “happy place.”

“I have no time for TV or sitting on the baraza [public bench]. Seeing my students achieve in the arts gives me the greatest joy. It gives me a purpose. Young people need spaces to talk, learn, exchange ideas. Young people crave creativity.”

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